Stop banning Pastor Terry Jones

Yes, he’s a bigoted, deluded Islamophobe – but can’t free speech cope with that?

So Pastor Terry Jones, the American preacher infamous for his aborted "Burn a Quran Day" prior to the last anniversary of September 11, has been banned from entering the UK after all. He now will not be able to join demonstrations against mosque-building organised by England Is Ours, an anti-immigration group which believes, according to its website, that Britain's three main political parties are all "corrupty" (sic).

Leave aside the nonsense spouted by this group and by Pastor Jones, who seems to share the concern of England Is Ours about "the expansion of Islam in the UK, and the apparent collusion shown by the British government to this expansion". (I like that dastardly word, "collusion".) It is wrong to bar him, just as it would have been wrong to have barred him in December when those other lovable rogues, the English Defence League, invited him to speak.

In the event, the EDL withdrew the invitation, so the Home Secretary was not called upon to make a decision about whether to let him in. Not before, however, many had insisted he be turned away – the Labour MP Jon Cruddas in particular.

I wrote about this at the time. (Cruddas responded in the Guardian by branding me a member of the "liberal elite". I would have thanked him for the compliment, but that clearly wasn't his intention.) You can find the original piece here, so I will just quote the following from it now:

We consider him to be distasteful, for sure, uncivilised, uncouth, the possessor of barbaric and ignorant views. But if we value free speech at all, those can never be reasons enough to ban him. Let Pastor Jones come to Britain, and if his speech breaks any law, then throw the book at him.

I stand by that. What I find sinister this time, however, is the language used by the Home Office to justify excluding him. "Numerous comments made by Pastor Jones are evidence of his unacceptable behaviour. Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right, and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good."

Such vague, paternalistic terms, "conducive to the public good" and "unacceptable behaviour", the first sounding like a useful get-out for a police state and the second reminiscent of a ticking-off from an old-fashioned housemaster: "Matron found you in bed during morning prayers two days in a row, Byrnes. Your behaviour is unacceptable. You will commence three hours' detention after you have finished your prep."

Worse still, though, is this contention that "coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right". Yes, technically that may be correct. But in this day of easy and open borders and frequent travel, is that really how we view visiting another country? Perhaps we should put those words in big signs above our immigration counters. That would make tourists and businessmen feel welcome, wouldn't it?

Put it the other way. After flying over the Atlantic, would not a trip to New York start just that little bit less joyously if one were constantly reminded that even being let into the country was "a privilege, not a right"? (True, US immigration officials are notoriously brusque and unfriendly, but they don't go that far.) We have a visa waiver programme for when we go to the States, and US tourists or visitors need only present a valid passport on arrival in the UK. We expect to be able to travel freely between our two friendly nations, and anyone of an internationalist outlook would not wish it otherwise.

But Pastor Jones is such a danger to us all, apparently, that we must ban him from entering Britain. Stop – lest his honeyed tones and fine intellect persuade us of the merits of his views, or stir our nation of placid shopkeepers into a violent, howling mob!

Or you may think, as I do, that it is a ridiculous and heavy-handed ruling over a man whose words and actions should never have been taken so seriously in the first place.

As I concluded the last time I commented on Jones's case: "What has anyone to fear from a man so confused and deluded that, before his Quran-burning stunt, he could seriously declare that its aim was 'to send a message to the moderate Muslims to stay peaceful and moderate'?"

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What did Jeremy Corbyn really say about Bin Laden?

He's been critiqued for calling Bin Laden's death a "tragedy". But what did Jeremy Corbyn really say?

Jeremy Corbyn is under fire for describing Bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” in the Sun, but what did the Labour leadership frontrunner really say?

In remarks made to Press TV, the state-backed Iranian broadcaster, the Islington North MP said:

“This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

He also added that it was his preference that Osama Bin Laden be put on trial, a view shared by, among other people, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson.

Although Andy Burnham, one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, will later today claim that “there is everything to play for” in the contest, with “tens of thousands still to vote”, the row is unlikely to harm Corbyn’s chances of becoming Labour leader. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.